It’s back to school time! I know because they just celebrated Coffin Night here in Key West.
What’s Coffin Night, you ask?
Well, it’s a Back To School ritual uniquely Key West . . . and also a subplot of the Abandon series, in which a teenage girl discovers that beneath the cemetery of the small Floridian island to which she’s recently moved lies the Underworld.
This is partly because of a young man whose corpse was never adequately buried (maybe because he never actually died. We’ll find out in the final book of the series, Awaken, due out in May 2012, God willing and the creek don’t rise).
How messed up would that be, if you started a new school this year, and you found out an UNDERWORLD existed beneath it?
I’ve had some pretty messed up back-to-school moments, but never anything THAT bad.
Anyway, every Homecoming here in Key West, the senior class builds a coffin and hides it somewhere on the island, to “bury” the competition (the junior class). If the junior class finds the coffin, they get to “burn” the seniors (literally. They burn the coffin on the field at the Homecoming game).
Of course, the real reason they’re doing all this (but the tradition goes back so long, no one remembers), is to bury the corpses that were washed away from the Key West cemetery in the a Great Havana Hurricane of October 1846, the second-strongest storm on record, a Category 5 that wiped out much of Havanna, the Keys, and swept all the way up the east coast to New York City to take out one hundred yards of the Battery, before dying down somewhere along New England.
The storm destroyed both the lighthouses in Key West, the naval hospital, and 594 of the island’s 600 other buildings, besides upending all the coffins in the cemetery, washing many of the skeletons inside out to sea. The ones that could be found had to be reburied in above ground tombs on higher ground, in what is today’s Key West’s beautiful cemetery, and popular tourist spot.
Coffin Night marks the start of every school year in Key West. It is not condoned by any school official, but it goes on anyway.
This year, it’s rumored that a responsible adult found the coffin (or at least a small decoy coffin) well before any student did, so the burning of it was thus avoided (thanks to Key West Diary for that information, and for the photo of said coffin, below).
Photo courtesy of Key West Diary
As you might have read in Key West Diary, above, even though Coffin Night got cancelled this year, there was still a lot of egg throwing. I did not choose to include the egg throwing part of Coffin Night in the Abandon series (which is set on the fictional island of Isla Huesos) because I consider sneaking around in the dark, throwing eggs (and, in some cases, bottles) at moving vehicles to be behavior more befitting of middle schoolers than high schoolers. Therefore, it had no place in my series, which is a tale of straight up paranormal mystery and romance.
Special Note: For anyone considering coming to Key West on vacation, the Coffin Night egg throwing takes place almost exclusively the first week or so of September in New Town, which is somewhat far from Old Town – where Duval Street, the main drag and tourist center of the island, is located. It can be presumed that this is because Old Town is more heavily policed, and egg throwers would immediately be caught.
Anyway, for everyone who is going back to school, we’re having a writing contest on the Meg Cabot forums. We want to hear YOUR Back to School story, whether it’s about something like Key West’s Coffin Night, trouble fitting in, a mysterious new boy (or girl) in your class, fictional, true, or whatever. The best story will receive a free Meg Cabot book of his/her choice! Users will vote on the story that is their favorite. Click
here for the details!
To inspire you, I’m posting MY Back to School story below. It’s a re-print of a story of mine Seventeen Magazine ran a long time ago. I swear it’s all true! No one was as surprised as I was when, after years of struggling to fit in on the first school, I stopped trying, and . . . well, you’ll see. Enjoy:
I got it every year, just about this time: that giddy, excited feeling, that anything—anything—could happen. Sure, I’d never been the prettiest or most popular girl in my class before. But this year?
Things were going to be different.
Why shouldn’t they? Hadn’t I spent the whole summer—well, in between babysitting gigs to raise cash for that all-important back-to-school wardrobe—working out and giving up dessert so I could lose those last pesky five pounds? Not to mention laying on the roof of our carport, smothered in Coppertone with Sun-In in my hair, trying to get that healthy summer glow … no mean feat while battling a mom who kept calling me inside to empty the dishwasher.
But if I could just get him to look at me—and you all know who he was: Mr. Perfect, the guy with the locker next door to mine, who never gave me a second glance because of her, Ms. Perfect, who seemed to have achieved the ideal wardrobe, body, and highlights without the slightest bit of effort, and who was consequently glued at the hips to him—it would all have been worth it…even the hours I’d spent in the mall, attempting to replicate the cute outfits I’d seen in the pages of the two-inch thick fall issues of my favorite magazines.
And okay, by mall I mean outlet mall. But the stuff I found there looked almost exactly like the designer stuff in the photos, for a fraction of the price!
By the time the first day of school finally rolled around, and I’d strutted to the bus stop (because my friends and I had parents who couldn’t afford to buy us cars for our birthdays), I’d barely be able to contain my excitement. Sure, the guys my best friend and I rode to school with (and had known since kindergarten) pretended they didn’t notice a difference…but we didn’t miss the sidelong glances they shot us from behind their Raybans. We looked good. They knew it. We knew it.
This year, things were going to be different.
The excitement lasted all the way until I got off the bus….
And then I saw her, Ms. Perfect, getting out of the red convertible her parents had gotten her for her birthday.
She was wearing my exact same outfit…only she had the real designer stuff I’d seen in the magazines, not knock-offs from the outlet mall.
There wasn’t an ounce of spare fat on her. Her tan was all over, the result of water-skiing at the lake all summer, not hours stolen here and there on top of a carport. Her highlights were salon-perfect, not the result of at-home experimentation.
When I finally made it to my locker a few minutes later, there she was, in a liplock with him, Mr. Perfect.
And then it would hit me, all over again:
Nothing was going to be different this year. Nothing had changed. And nothing ever would.
Until, it turned out, college.
It happened the first month of college: I had finally given up on trying to be the prettiest, or the most popular. I didn’t bother tanning, or trying to lose weight, or even getting a new fall wardrobe before school started. I was more concerned about getting into the right classes and making new friends in the dorm at the massive state university I’d gotten into.
I was barreling along campus—I still didn’t have a car, but I had a kickass computer to write my novels and short stories on—so I almost didn’t see the guy until I practically ran into him, and he said my name.
I looked up, astonished. On a campus of thirty thousand people, what were the chances that, at eight thirty in the morning, I’d run into someone I knew?
But there he was: Mr. Perfect.
“I didn’t know you go here!” he cried, happily. “You look great. Hey, you should stop by the frat house tonight. We’re having a party. I’d love to see you, catch up on old times. Here’s my number.”
I stared at him, confused. Where was Ms. Perfect?
Then I remembered. They’d broken up right before graduation.
This was my big chance. Things were finally going to be different now.
“Sorry,” I heard myself saying. “I can’t. I’m busy.”
His face fell. “But—”
“I gotta go,” I said. “Sorry. Bye.”
When I got to class, I threw his number away. Because things were different now. The most important thing of all: